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The Reality of Fear and the Presence of Reality: Suffering and Cultural Renewal

January 18th, 2023 | 16 min read

By Jake Meador

These are the remarks I gave as part of my plenary lecture at this year’s Eighth Day Institute Symposium in Wichita, KS. You can learn more about EDI’s work and sign up to support them as a member by visiting their website.

The words “be not afraid,” come down to God’s people in the pages of Holy Scripture. The sheer ubiquity of the command suggests that there are many grounds in this world for fear.

We might fear some sudden onset of unlooked for calamity, and so the Proverbs tell us that when the wise lie down, they shall not be afraid while the Psalms tell us that the righteous will not fear evil tidings.

We might fear the loss of loved ones—and so Jesus tells the leader of the synagogue in Mark 5 to not fear, but only believe.

We might fear our enemies—and so God exhorts Joshua to not be afraid as he takes on Moses’s mantle and leads God’s people into the Promised Land.

We might fear that which we do not understand or cannot comprehend—and so virtually every time an angel appears to someone in Scripture they must tell the person not to fear.

We might fear being swept away in the chaos of our historical moment—and so God reminds his prophets, both Isaiah and Jeremiah, witnesses to upheavals and revolutions, to not be afraid.

There is a sense, of course, in which we can do no better than to attend to these scriptural injunctions, to hear and obey. And so as I consider our time together my mind runs to the story of T. S. Eliot responding to a question from the audience after he had given a reading of some of his poems. “But what do they mean?” one woman is said to have asked. Eliot paused, looked at her quizzically, and then said, “you mean you wish me to say it worse?” In trying to think God’s thoughts after him, we can only say it worse and so our words should be few, a fearsome warning to those of us engaged in public reflection on God and his works.

Yet this also is true: Christ’s church encounters the world in history; the challenges and obstacles she faces at any one time are, in a sense, quite distinct from those of another. And so we honor God, the creator of this world and of the human beings who shape it, by seeking to discern how to faithfully apply his revelatory word to the world in our particular moment. This, indeed, was the task that the late pontiff Benedict XVI felt as so urgent and which drove so much of his life’s work, from his Introduction to Christianity all the way through his encyclicals and trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth. So I want to begin our time by considering the cultural moment we find ourselves in, a moment which furnishes us with many reasons to fear, before proceeding to attempt an answer to that moment guided and constrained by God’s revelation of himself to us.

The current moment presents two distinct difficulties to us, both of which will require a bit of unpacking. To begin, there is a spiritual challenge brought about by a hollowing out of spiritual life in the modern era. This is not a new observation—figures as disparate as the British Catholic Christopher Dawson and the American Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen and the Dutch Calvinist Herman Bavinck were all raising this alarm in the early 20th century. The problem facing us looks something like this: Since the time of the mid 18th century in Britain, the world has been slowly discovering new forms of technology that in many ways make our material life far better than it once was.

The development of a machine like the loom in early modern Britain made cotton clothing more affordable and more available than it had been in the days of home-based weaving enterprises. The advent of the steam engine made it possible to transport both goods and people over previously unimaginable distances, thereby facilitating trade as well as the exchange of ideas and softer cultural goods as well as a number of new innovations only made possible by the encounter of previously remote nations and cultures. Modern sanitation and medicine have protected us from some illnesses and turned others, which were once far more serious, into minor inconveniences. While in Zambia 15 years ago, I contracted malaria. After an exceedingly unpleasant week and a visit to a Coptic doctor near Lusaka who clucked his tongue at the “stupid Americans” who prescribed me an ineffective anti-malarial, he gave me a new prescription and within a matter of days I was bungee jumping off a bridge near Mosi-oa-Tunya, also known as Victoria Falls. A disease that once killed millions can now be routinely treated with a pill.

The development of modern fertilizers, irrigation techniques, and high-yield crops have all allowed us to grow far more food than ever before in human history and have made that food available at prices lower than ever before seen in human history, all of which has culminated in booming populations. It was not until 1804 that the human population reached one billion. As of last year, there are now eight billion of us. I say all of this so as to establish the clear and real material benefits afforded to mankind by the technological transformations of the modern era.

Yet even so, this transformation has not been without cost, a fact almost entirely ignored by modernity’s enthusiasts. The aforementioned Machen, however, recognized these costs:

Scientific investigation, as has already been observed, has certainly accomplished much; it has in many respects produced a new world. But there is another aspect of the picture which should not be ignored. The modern world represents in some respects an enormous improvement over the world in which our ancestors lived; but in other respects it exhibits a lamentable decline.

The improvement appears in the physical conditions of life, but in the spiritual realm there is a corresponding loss. The loss is clearest, perhaps, in the realm of art. Despite the mighty revolution which has been produced in the external conditions of life, no great poet is now living to celebrate the change; humanity has suddenly become dumb. Gone, too, are the great painters and the great musicians and the great sculptors. The art that still subsists is largely imitative, and where it is not imitative it is usually bizarre. Even the appreciation of the glories of the past is gradually being lost, under the influence of a utilitarian education that concerns itself only with the production of physical well-being.

In other words, through its constant fixation on the material existence of human beings, Machen feared that modernity hollowed out mankind’s internal worlds, leaving behind a spiritual impoverishment that led to a sundering from the beautiful, such that we not only ceased to produce beautiful things ourselves, but we even forgot or devalued the beauties offered to us by our longfathers.

Another incisive observer of these costs has been the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot. Writing in the 1940s, Eliot argued that,

The more highly industrialized a country, the more easily a materialistic philosophy will flourish in it, and the more deadly that philosophy will be. Britain has been highly industrialized longer than any other country. And the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women—of all classes—detached from tradition, alienated from religion, and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.

In other words, industrialization, Eliot says, tends to detach mankind from the sources of wisdom and, indeed, to detach individual persons from other individuals. The result is that the only forms of human identity left behind are autonomous individuals and large, faceless entities driven chiefly by mob dynamics. Later in the same volume he wrote,

That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination.

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

And what happens when our only mode of interpreting and experiencing reality is the mechanical? The great Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan provides an answer,

When every activity is understood as making, then every situation into which we act is seen as raw material, waiting to have something made out of it. If there is no category in thought for an action which is not artifactual, then there is no restraint in action which can preserve phenomena which are not artificial. This imperils not only, or even primarily, the ‘environment’ (as we patronizingly describe the world of things which are not human); it imperils what it is to be human, for it deprives human existence itself of certain spontaneities of being and doing, spontaneities which depend upon the reality of a world which we have not made or imagined, but which simply confronts us to evoke our love, fear, and worship. Human life, then, becomes mechanized because we cannot comprehend what it means that some human activity is ‘natural’.

Politics becomes controlled by media of mass communication, love by analytical or counseling techniques. And begetting children becomes subject to medical and surgical interventions.

In short, industrialized, globalized modernity has given us more secure food supplies, more hygienic cities, and longer life spans. But there is some sense in which this extended, safer life has come to resemble the prolonged lives of any who possessed the mythical ring of power in Tolkien’s legendarium: prolonged life, perhaps, but not more life. And so all of us begin to feel spiritually something similar to Bilbo’s description of himself offered to Gandalf in the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring: I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.

Thus the spiritual crisis—a thinning out of the human person, particularly our internal life, in a way that hollows out our experience of the world and isolates us from our neighbors, from creation, and even from ourselves in some sense.

There is a material danger confronting us now as well: While it is true that the industrialized world has offered many great material benefits to humanity, we must also be aware of how fragile that modern era, particularly the globalized era of the post-Cold War world, truly is. There are two chief problems, both of which will have the affect of lowering our material quality of life in the coming decades. First, much of the world is headed for a demographic winter—much of northern and central Europe as well as virtually all of east Asia are aging into mass retirement this decade. And there isn’t really any economic theory we have for what happens to a country that lacks the young people sufficient to provide a reliable tax base and to serve as lower cost labor and the primary consumers in a nation, let alone to provide a tax base sufficient to support an unprecedentedly high level of retirees.

By 2050, China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands will all look wildly different. Many other countries are not far behind—much of Europe has similar demographic problems, if not quite as extreme as Germany or Belgium’s. But these problems will not simply impact these countries; it will also impact the countries in economic relationships with those nations, which is to say it affects everyone. Imagine a world with less German manufacturing, with less Chinese industry and so on. The system we have is built on certain assumptions about the availability of workers of wildly different skill levels to produce goods and of large consumer bases able to absorb those goods. What happens when that cornerstone cracks?

Secondly, many of the energy inputs that make modern transportation and agriculture possible rely on exceedingly complex supply chains that are vulnerable to disruption. That they have been secure for as long as they have is a result of the Pax Americana that has reigned in the world since 1989 and which was found throughout much of the world even prior to that. But as America withdraws into itself more, as we have been doing for a decade now, supply chains can become more vulnerable and begin to break. The chaos brought about by COVID and then by the Ukraine war both hint at what may come in the future. Some nations will weather this storm better than others. But all will be affected by it.

So where does this leave us? Well, the future is uncertain, but it would seem to be fairly bleak. We are a people marked by alienation from one another as well as a deep spiritual impoverishment. We are likely embarking on a time of greater scarcity and diminished quality of life and many of us lack the internal resources needed to cope with such a loss. We might perhaps recall the words of Pope Francis from his Urbi et Orbi blessing during the early days of the pandemic:

In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”

So we find ourselves as God’s people in this moment, facing crisis ourselves, perhaps even wavering in our own life of discipleship. We have reason to fear. And yet the Lord’s command “do not fear” strikes us today just as it did the original hearers all those centuries ago. Even here we are called to love our neighbor and so we are called to bring a good word of hope and reconciliation brought about by Christ to a world starving for such hope. How can such things be?

The Swiss Calvinist Emil Brunner once said that each person is, simply by virtue of being born, the recipient of an “immense inheritance,” by which he meant both the natural created order made by God and the accumulated institutions, policies, norms, and tools made by human beings. The question before us, I think, is something like this: What happens when that inheritance isn’t passed on? What happens when events conspire in such a way that we are cut off not only from many of the goods achieved by our ancestors, but seem even to be cut off from nature itself? How do we as the people of God learn the life of discipleship amidst such a calamity and how do we bring the good news of the Gospel to bear in our world amidst such loss?

There are many ways we might answer the question. We might appeal directly to nature apart from any special revelation—perhaps where you anticipate me going—but I think the almost comprehensive failure of the new natural law project suggests this is a false move. Others might suggest a kind of reform from the top down, achieved through securing political power. This, to my eye, is a dangerous path. First, to reduce our project down to mere political power places us in the position of being able to justify virtually anything in the quest for power, such that by the time we have obtained power we will have long since ceased to be morally fit to wield it. Moreover, those who pursue power with single-minded zeal attract a great many hangers on, who can and will drag others down into the mud with them, and suddenly professing Christians will find themselves promoting the most appalling evils. No, a naked pursuit of power will not save us.

What’s more, I worry that in both of these strategies, one which foregrounds apologetics while the other foregrounds politics, we are actually falling into the very error O’Donovan warns against: We are thinking in terms of techniques which can fix the problem in the machine. To be sure, it is not wrong to engage in the apologetic task, nor is it wrong to seek to see God rendered what is his due in the public square. Yet when these strategies become the center of our hope, we have slid into error, I think, mistaking strategies for realities. If our hope rests in the former, then we are no different than any other partisan group or NGO, grounding our hope for the world in the success of a given strategy. To go down this road is to leave the path of Christian discipleship and to take up some alternative belief system in which Christianity is, at best, a bit player.

No, our hope must be founded on realities, not strategies.

This, then, is where I wish to take us: The shape of the Christian life is the shape of the cross. What is the calling God has for us? If the witness of both Scripture and history is any indicator, which it of course is, one answer to that question is “to suffer.” The Gospels are filled with warnings from Christ that those who follow him will suffer with him. As we look set to embark on an era of greater suffering, I want to suggest that it is the witness and courage of a suffering church that will direct our eyes and the world’s eyes to Christ, our only hope in life and death.

To learn how to suffer faithfully is perhaps especially imperative in our own day, not only because we are entering an era likely to be harder and more difficult than what many of us have long known, but also because so few of our neighbors are even equipped to understand how suffering can be meaningful. A great part of the material project of the past centuries has been a pushing back against death, but also against many other sources of human suffering—poverty and famine being foremost. However, as time has passed, this materialist project has pushed beyond the mere attempt to help ease specific forms of human suffering and has pushed into something greater—an attempt to end human suffering altogether. The result is that many of us do not know how to suffer and so we view suffering as a technical problem to solve, rather than a calling which comes to us all at some point in our lives. Ben Frush and Brewer Eberly summed it up this way,

Sir Francis Bacon (16th century scientist and philosopher) was the first to explicitly champion the relief of suffering of humankind as both an explicit goal and a moral imperative. Bacon advocated for a “technological utopianism,” a philosophy which viewed no ailment or disease (at least in principle) as incurable. While suffering and death were accepted as “given” elements of the human condition prior to Bacon, the new “Baconian Project” espoused a view of the human that rejected these anthropological contingencies and viewed humankind as agents harnessing their ingenuity and resources to overcome or “relieve” their condition.

In this repudiation of suffering, I think we see the culmination of the sort of mechanical instincts of modernity that were flagged by Machen, Eliot, and O’Donovan. Creatures suffer and yet the fact of their suffering does not negate the goodness of their existence. Existence, life, remains a gift, even when it is accompanied by pain and sorrow, for as the late Benedict XVI reminds us, “every life is a vocation,” every life is a calling. And so even life marked by suffering is meaningful and significant, for it witnesses to the goodness of existence and, for the Christian, to the hope of the resurrection. The life of the suffering is a kind of icon, an attempt to help our earthly eyes look and see what is found in heaven with God.

As Christians we can and should recognize, of course, that suffering is not in keeping with God’s original intent for creation, nor will it be part of our eternal state. And yet as we await patiently the renewal of all things, we bear suffering as creatures for we know that creaturely suffering can be meaningful. On the other hand, if human beings are basically machines, then suffering is a kind of malfunction in the machine. And when a machine malfunctions, you either get the machine back into working order or you throw it out—perhaps this is why we have broadly lost the idea that suffering can be meaningful and, to put a point on it, why assisted suicide now ranks among the leading causes of death in Canada, accounting for 3.3% of all deaths in Canada in 2021 and nearly 5% of all deaths in the provinces of Quebec and British Columbia.

Alongside this stark reality to our north is the similarly frightening jump we have seen in America in suicide rates as well as deaths of despair, those which are caused by alcoholism or drug overdoses. Christians offer a better hope—and it is one that we badly need to hear, particularly as we confront a graying world that will often struggle to identify grounds for hope, that will often give in to fear, even allowing fear to drive them to despair and death. Faithful suffering may be the mark of the church by which God brings revival and renewal in the days to come.

This is a hard word. So we should say two more things before we close.

First, to accept a vocation to suffering is not to adopt a posture of passivity. I am not counseling withdrawal from public life or a quietistic separatism. Christians must be engaged in our communities if we are to follow the command to love neighbor. Indeed, the only way we can bear up under suffering is if we bear one another’s burdens. Additionally, some of us will have callings toward politics or corporate leadership or some other relatively public role with wide-ranging authority. Those called to this work should seek to do the work well in submission to the Lordship of Christ and they should enjoy the counsel and aid of their local Christian communities. Where they are successful in their endeavors, we should rejoice.

Further, as part of this posture of engagement with the world, we must seek to speak a sensible word to the world. When Paul preached to the philosophers of Athens he sounded a different note than when he spoke to the Jews or when he spoke in the comparative backwater of Lystra. To foreground the call to suffer is not to reject or negate the call to what John Stott called “double listening”—listening to the Word and to the world. The point here is not that strategies for renewal are categorically wrong or should be rejected. The point, rather, is that we must understand the basics of Christian discipleship before we begin identifying hills we wish to conquer Indeed, even the call to suffer is itself a call to a kind of activity. Emil Brunner describes the Christian life in this way,

In spite of the fact that God gives us His grace purely out of groundless love, in this whole process man is not presupposed as passive, but on the contrary, as extremely active. The action of God is achieved by apprehending the highest activity of man, which… is to surrender oneself, to surrender all, to give oneself over to death, to look away wholly from oneself to the Word of God alone.

It is in this active surrendering that we can both be built up in our faith, made firm and secure and unafraid, and equipped for a life of love and good works in service of neighbor.

Second, to be called to suffer should not come to us as a strange word, though I fear it likely does to many. Through the Gospel, each of us is united to Christ in his death and resurrection and through Christian discipleship we are made like him in our daily living. But Christ himself is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He bore a cross. So if we are to be united with him, if we are to be like him, then we should expect to shoulder a cross with him and in humble dependence on him.

And yet here is the interesting thing: We know, of course, that the cross is not the end of the redemptive story of Scripture. It is a pivotal act, but it is followed by another: the resurrection from the dead. And here we see something that is perhaps surprising: This restoration is not founded on an escape from this world or a transcendence of our creatureliness. As we embark on the Christian life, we do so in our bodies and as we enter into the world to come we will do so in our bodies. We bring our bodies into eternity because Christ brings his body into eternity. So our hope is not simply that we ourselves would be saved from the chaos and uncertainty of our day or from our own private demons and wickedness. The hope offered us by the first fruits of the new creation is that good things are never lost to God. And so, to recall the words of Tolkien, “the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).